Lady of Forges, Lady of Flames.

Today is Imbolc.

I write this while sitting before a fire, remembering every other Imbolc at which I sat before fire. This year, as the last two years, it’s a wood fire. Each of the three years before that, the fire came from candles.

Imbolc is the name given to one of the oldest remembered Celtic holidays still celebrated in European and other lands. It’s not clear where the name came from, though most think it’s a reference to the beginning of the birthing of lambs. It might also refer to milk; both are possible and related.

Before industrial civilization enchained cattle and humans into factories, people in northern climates went through periods of food scarcity late in the winter. Harvests that had been stored in autumn dwindled, as did the meat from animals slaughtered just before the deep cold set in. Even all the ales and meads (ready by mid-winter Carnifals) would be mostly gone by now. Nothing would grow, either, and all that was left was to wait for Imbolc.

Because by Imbolc, the lambs and other livestock began to produce milk for their new offspring as they are born. The beginning of a new cycle of abundance, the promise of growth and sunlight and warmthall of that was this day, Imbolc.

It’s also known as Brigid’s day, or St. Brigid’s.

Brigid of Menez Hôm, Bretagne

Perhaps no other ancient goddess was so blatantly preserved in Catholic practice. Sure, it’s obvious after just a little digging to figure out where other saints came from (France’s patron St. Denis is named after the Gaulish shorthand for Dionysus, for instance). But even the practices around St. Brigid’s days make it impossible to argue the saint was anything more than a concession to Celtic Pagans.

Another catholic holy-day that maps to Imbolc is Candlemas, which itself carries on many traditions of the Roman Pagan festival of Lupercalia (15 February). During Candlemas, all the old candle stubs and left-over wax from the year before are melted down to be made into new candles. It’s a day of purification and transformation, fitting well with one of the aspects of Brigid, that of patroness of forging.

Besides forging, Brigid is known for many other things. Christopher Scott Thompson’s book, Pagan Anarchism, details three aspects of her particularly relevant to anti-capitalists. My favorite aspect is that of Brig Ambue, “Brigid of the Cowless.” The lore speaks of a Brigid who defended the rights of the dispossessed, the poor, and the outcasts (including criminals). Other aspects include that of justice (particularly on behalf of women) and hospitality.

I know her as the lady of the forge, the lady of the springs, and the lady of the hearth. Five years ago today I had a vision of a woman sitting in front of a fire, throwing fuel into it and laughing. I’d had the vision before, so many times I thought I was going crazy. I’d close my eyes and see it, blink and see it, always certain I could hear that laughter to the point I almost asked others if they heard her too.

Everything about myself changed that day. Or started to, because ‘reforging’ isn’t a short process. I look back at my life of almost 41 years (my birthday’s a day before lupercalia, on the day of a beheaded saint, in case you’re curious), and see that day five years ago as some sort of rebirth.

I don’t really like the word rebirth, thoughthat’s what the christians use, the ‘born-again’ drivel that makes them hate abortion and gays. “Reforged” makes more sense, anyway. I didn’t die and change: things broke apart and melted down but are all still there, just in different, better places.

But like the way christians who’ve been ‘born again’ seem to all share the same experience, there seems to be lots of others who’ve had similar experiences with Brigid. Several of them write for this site, others are people I’ve met randomly. But again, unlike christians, we don’t go around telling people how great it is and how she’ll save your soul. If anything, we usually advise caution, because it’s not necessarily a nice and comfortable thing to have your entire life re-arranged around you. Gods help you like forest fires help the forest and lightning fertilizes the earth; powerful, but not pleasant.

Besides, Paganism and witchcraft aren’t colonizer religions anyway. We don’t need or want missionaries, or crusades, or tent revivals. The gods I know seem generally indifferent to whether or not people believe in them; but it’s precisely because they aren’t conqueror gods, or civilization gods. They’re not the gods of kings and popes and CEO’s, but usually of poor people and trees and small streams. Gods of things that actually matter.

Brigid’s one of those gods, and I speak of her not to tell you to believe in her. There’s no point believing in things anyway; belief is for obedient people who do what they’re told and don’t question. I think that’s why gods don’t really seem to care if you believe them or notwho wants to talk to slavish fools who question nothing?

Offering the manuscript of Anthony Rella’s new book Circling The Star to Brigid on Imbolc. She likes ‘important paper’ particularly.

I speak of Brigid mostly to tell you about me, why certain things are important to me, why other things don’t matter at all. Because I know a goddess who cares about criminals and poor people and likes to throw things into a fire and laugh about it. I think she laughs because she knows nothing is ever really completely burnt. Ashes remain, and those ashes feed forests.

So it’s Imbolc, Brigid’s day, a day that was a lot more important to people before capitalism than it is to people living under capitalism. I think it will be an important day again. It has been for me these last five years, and also to an increasing number of people I love and care about and want to fight alongside of, whether they know of Brigid or not.

Happy Imbolc.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.


The Pre-sale for Circling The Star continues until 14 February, 2018.

On Getting Perspective

I don’t have the time to waste in these arguments any longer. I can feel the clouds gathering on the horizon. The storm is coming, and when it does, there will be no time left for pointless arguments and accusations.

From Emma Kathryn

This week I’ve been gently reminded to be careful not to commit cultural appropriation. Twice. In talking about the loa, Papa Legba to be exact, I was told that I should be careful not to appropriate the African gods.

Now let me just make clear that this is not going to be yet another essay describing what is and what is not appropriation, but the whole incident got me thinking. I mean, the advice was offered in good faith, I’m sure it was meant well (and the person giving said advice wasn’t to know I’m an obeah woman, was she now?), and they seemed nice enough in all regards, but there was something that left me feeling a bit blah about the whole conversation after that remark.

I could have taken the time to reassure the person of my cultural heritage (though even to some that wouldn’t be good enough!), I could have expounded upon my experience and practise.

I did none of those things. Instead I left the conversation.

I don’t have the time to waste in these arguments any longer. I can feel the clouds gathering on the horizon. The storm is coming, and when it does, there will be no time left for pointless arguments and accusations. There never was any time for them really, it was a folly by us all, but I’m rambling.

There are plenty of folks who are nice, who don’t want to upset anyone and want to walk that middle ground, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just ignore the real wrongs that this world faces.

There are many real instances of racism and appropriation that the person could involve themselves with, if they really wanted to, but I guess it was much safer for them to confront me over my mention of the loa.

And that’s the real problem.

It’s like the Hollywood sex scandal, and the silent protest by many actors at the Golden Globes and their decision to wear black. It doesn’t achieve a single thing, except perhaps to get them more column inches, more TV coverage, keeps them relevant. These people, with their fortunes and with their platform could affect some real tangible change, that could help other survivors of abuse, others going through it, who don’t have the money or the platform.

But instead they chose to wear beautiful dresses that cost more than most women can even dream about.

And let’s not forget the precursor to this, the Me Too campaign. Regardless of whether or not you agree with it, what real change, for all women has it actually achieved? You barely hear about it now. Is it enough to highlight something most people, and certainly most women already know happens?

These campaigns rarely benefit all women, especially the ones undergoing abuse, the ones with no support, with no one and nothing. Yes, it must be such a comfort to know that these women, these celebrities are going to these extravagant awards shows looking fabulous whilst they are in their homes struggling to survive. A real help.

And this in turn highlights another problem, that often the people at the bottom, the poorest in society usually fall through the safety nets. Or perhaps the safety nets aren’t deep enough to begin with.

I can’t help but think that so much of what we argue over are very much middle class issues, and this is coming from a working class woman.

Only this week, a BBC presenter quit her role because of gender pay disparity. Now of course, obviously people doing the same job should be paid the same wage, it goes without saying, is so very obvious, isn’t it? But at the same time, to the poor, who can only ever hope for such sums of cash, it just seems so otherworldly. It doesn’t even compute. Added to that she still works for the BBC, but in a more junior position, well, what can I say?

When there are such distances between the classes, the haves and the have-nots, it can be difficult to see how we can move forward, I mean, I am always banging on about unity and the dangers of false divisions. Because of course racism, appropriation, sexism  and wealth are all false divisions used to separate people based on superficial differences.

So we need to get back to community, and that doesn’t mean we have to like everyone within that community, but it does mean that we don’t let our differences divide us. That’s part of the reason I like small town life ( when my little sister comes home for visits, back up north, she often says she’s coming back to the sticks!).

My little town was recently described in a BBC report as one of the most deprived places  and also the worst place to grow up poor in the UK, citing poor job security and prospects for the young, amongst other things. But to the poor, being poor is nothing new. It’s just life.

My estate is considered rough, but the people stick together. Whenever there’s something wrong with the car and no money for mechanics, you can guarantee that after a few minutes tinkering under the bonnet, there’ll be a couple of neighbours lending a hand. When kids go missing, the whole street will be out looking. Generally, the people are good, but life is hard for some, and sometimes people are forced to act in ways that are not always acceptable. Generally though, most of them are good people making the best of bad situations.

And it’s not just my street either, the whole town rally around in times of need. A few years back there was an explosion in someone’s house and they pretty much lost everything. The whole town pulled together, donating money, clothes, food shopping, utensils, furniture, all of the basics of living. People who didn’t have much to give gave anyway, for people they didn’t know.

We must pull together in times of need, with those who are closest to us, and also to others who are also in need, against those who would keep us down, keep us pitted against one another, blaming one another for real or perceived wrongs, even when the blame does not lay with any of them.

I also think we must remember the past, most particularly our ancestors, and we must learn whatever lessons there are to be learned.

One thing I will leave you with though, a little story of how a British Goddess became an African Loa. About pulling together in times of need to overcome the true threat, the one thing that united women, women who came from different worlds.

I have a particular fondness for the loa Maman Brigitte, often pictured with fair skin and red or brown straight hair..

What is not often known is that Maman Brigitte is the very same celtic Goddess Brigid, Brigantia, worshipped many centuries ago in my part of Britain. This ancient Goddess of the British isles was taken to the hearts of African slave women, introduced to them by white Irish and Scottish women, slaves themselves ( though it was called indentured service). These Irish and Scot women bought with them their beloved goddess, for solace and protection, and she offered aid and comfort to the African women too and was taken into the hearts of all women. The story of Maman Brigitte, her origins and how she was so loved by all women shows us that there is more that unites us than separates us.

Don’t get me wrong though.. Maman Brigitte is a fierce loa, protectress as well as a loa of death. This isn’t a story about forgiveness and acceptance, about being all loving , but rather a rally to those who also would overthrow the oppressors of us all.


Emma Kathryn

My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magick, of course!

You can follow Emma on Facebook


The Pre-Sale for Anthony Rella’s Circling The Star is here.

Why Is Brigit So Hungry?

By Christopher Scott Thompson

The_Bard
Although this is a lovely public domain painting of a bard by John Martin, it is not necessarily what bards actually look like.

 

The Scottish folktale “Great Brid of the Horses” survives only in a version collected from Cape Breton Gaelic storyteller Joe Neil MacNeil and published in Tales Until Dawn in 1987, but the concepts in this story are much older.

“Great Brid of the Horses” is based on a medieval Irish tale called “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly.” The original version is a story about the high-handed behavior of the fili or elite bards of Ireland under the leadership of famous poet Senchan Torpeist, who has a voraciously hungry wife named Brigit.

In “Great Brid of the Horses,”Senchan does not appear in person and the poets are led by a woman named Brid. Since the group is still called “Senchan’s Band” and Brid is just a variant of Brigit, this must be Senchan’s wife.

“Great Brid of the Horses” is greedy, demanding and unreasonable. Her personality is so different from the popular image of Brigit that they don’t seem to be the same sort of entity at all. Still, as the wife of Ireland’s greatest fili this Brigit could well have some connection to Brigit the goddess of poetry. This raises the question – why is Brigit so hungry?

Bardic Extortion

Senchan Torpeist is the anti-hero of “The Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly,” which is essentially a satire on the mafia-like behavior of the fili or poets. Because the clan chiefs and provincial kings of ancient Ireland were terrified of the magic power of a bardic satire (and of the fact that a satire could destroy a heroic reputation overnight), the poets were able to take advantage of the situation and impose on the kings.

When Senchan Torpeist was elected chief poet of Ireland, he decided to set the tone for his reign by visiting the good King Guaire with a vast following of lesser-ranked poets, hoping to bankrupt Guaire and force him to be less-than-flawlessly-generous to the poets. Senchan intended to use the slightest lapse on Guaire’s part as an excuse to satirize him, thus destroying the good king and establishing Senchan’s reputation as a poet to be feared and respected by all.

When Senchan’s wife Brigit sent a plate of food up to his room as a present, Senchan was enraged to find it eaten by rats or mice. He composed a satire on the creatures, and ten of them were killed by his magic power. (An incident so famous it was referenced by Shakespeare!) He then satirized the cats of the world because they failed to kill the mice, but Hirusan the King of the Cats came up out of the Cave of Cnogda to get revenge on Senchan. The monster cat ran away with Senchan, but St. Kieran saw it carrying the bard off and killed it with a flaming iron bar he happened to have handy.

Far from being happy at his fortunate rescue, Senchan was so put out that he remained gloomy of temperament for the rest of his days, because if he had been eaten alive by Hirusan then the Grand Bardic Assembly would have had the excuse they needed to satirize King Guaire.

As it happens, King Guaire was able to get rid of the Grand Bardic Assembly by asking them to recite the lost epic of the Tain, which shamed them into leaving and setting off on the quest by which the Tain was eventually recovered. As they were leaving, Senchan did refer to Guaire as “stainless” but added rather ominously that “We shall visit thee again, O Guaire, though now we depart.”

In “Great Brid of the Horses,” the poets impose themselves on a king and their leader Brid demands a series of impossible things such as blackberries in January, a meal of a pig that has never been born and a ride on a white horse with red ears. The symbolism of Brid’s demands is complex and symbolic, and seems to have something to do with the powers of the underworld. (As does the anecdote about her husband Senchan being dragged away by a monstrous cat who lives in a cave – raw cat flesh and raw pork were both used as sacrificial offerings by the fili when performing divination rituals.)

However, “Great Brid of the Horses” is not the only story about Senchan’s Band – in fact, these stories form a genre of their own in Highland folklore, and some of the other versions shed a different light on the entire concept.

Masterful Beggars

Starting in the late 16th century, the government of Scotland began to pass a series of repressive laws against wandering bards and other “masterful beggars” in the Scottish Highlands, ordering them to flee the country on pain of mutilation and death.

Masterful beggars were people who roamed from place to place “sorning” or demanding hospitality from clan chiefs and other powerful people. In traditional Gaelic society, the rich and powerful were expected to provide generous hospitality on demand to nearly anyone who asked for it, and any rich man who failed to do so would have been scorned by everyone.

This custom was, in effect, a social welfare system – privilege carried with it an absolute obligation to be generous. Sorners and masterful beggars could not be asked to move on, so they would often attach themselves to a particular chief and live on his largess for as long as possible. A chief could get rid of his sorners only if he could meet certain ritualized conditions. For instance, a wandering swordfighter could only be asked to leave if the chief could find a local swordfighter capable of defeating the wanderer in a broadsword match. A wandering bard could only be asked to leave if the chief could find a local person to defeat the bard in a battle of wits. (Or, as my wife Cicely would have it, an “MC battle.”)

There were different categories of sorners, who were generally expected to provide some sort of service in exchange for the chief’s hospitality. According to James Garden, writing in 1692, wandering bardic troupes usually included “excellent poets” or what he called phili (the elite fili of Gaelic tradition), storytellers and genealogists or sheanachi, conversationalists and news-carriers or kreahkirin and riddlers or kheakirin. Garden also mentions fiddlers and women who sang Gaelic songs, and notes that such wandering bands of entertainers were known as Chlearheanachi. Whenever a bardic troupe came into a certain district, they would take turns visiting the local chief to provide entertainment and receive his gifts.

According to the Gaelic scholar John Shaw in his article “Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Cliar Sheanchain,” these troupes were colloquially known in the Highlands as the Cliar Sheanchain or Senchan’s Band, just like the group in “Great Brid of the Horses.” Although the earlier “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly” portrays Senchan’s troupe as a band of high-ranking fili, the later Scottish Gaelic folklore uses the phrase Cliar Sheanchain for bands of sorners.

Brigit of the Great Hunger

According to Shaw, the name Great Brid of the Horses or Brid Mhor Each, is actually a later misinterpretation of Brigit Mhor-shaithech, a phrase that originally meant “Brigit of the Great Appetite,” referring to the wife of Senchan Torpeist. I would suggest that the name may not be merely a misinterpretation but a play on words, as the double meaning would have been appealing to any Gaelic storyteller. In Highland stories, the battle of wits between the Cliar Sheanchain and the local wit always ends when the local says something so clever that it stupefies or silences the bard – an act known as “putting the black mare” on the silenced person. This was seen as an act of magic, not just of cleverness, so there is an association between magic power, superior wit and horses.

So, if Great Brid of the Horses is also Brigit of the Great Hunger, we return to the original question – why is Brigit so hungry? The fili were a high status class in ancient Irish society, so why would the wife of Ireland’s chief fili be hungry at all? The story presents it solely as a case of bardic avarice, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

Direct Action

Shaw mentions another variation on “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly,” collected from Highland storyteller Archibald MacTavish in 1881 or 1882. In this version of the tale, the members of the Cliar Sheanchain are described as “five hundred blind men, and five hundred deaf men, five hundred lame men, and five hundred dumb men, and five hundred crippled men” along with their wives, children and dogs. Other accounts of the Cliar Sheanchain indicate that the bardic troupes were actually much smaller than this – maybe a dozen or two people in a band. However, this description is quite revealing.

The repressive acts of the Scottish government against the bards in the late 16th and early 17tth centuries were not directed against the high-status professional fili retained on a full-time basis by clan chiefs, but only against the wandering “masterful beggars” of the Cliar Sheanchain. These laws were not designed to destroy the bardic institution per se, just the wanderers who demanded hospitality under threat of magical satire. Why exactly did they do so? Not because they were uncontrollably greedy as most of the stories suggest, but because they were homeless people, often with physical disabilities, who needed material assistance to survive.

Gaelic culture, over the centuries, had developed an effective social welfare system in which the poor and disadvantaged could compel assistance from the powerful through magical acts of “direct action.” The law intervened to crush them, by scourging, branding and hanging defiant bards.

“Great Brid of the Horses” is also “Brigit of the Great Hunger,” not because the bards are greedy but because her people are hungry. She is the ruling spirit of the Cliar Sheanchain, their protector and champion, a goddess vilified even in the lore that preserved her name – just as the homeless and hungry are vilified still.

“Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Cliar Sheanchain” by John Shaw:

http://goo.gl/ihKmIZ


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